The Criminalist: The Golden Years of Detection

At the Barnes & Noble Review, my newest column looks at the wonderfully entertaining Bryant & May novels by Christopher Fowler. The plots harken back to the Golden Age of mystery but are very much of our time now. Here’s how the piece opens:

In 1928, Willard Huntington Wright (better known as S. S. Van Dine) set down “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories”,

which attempted to cement what should and should not be done in

detective fiction. His colleagues and readers took Van Dine’s edicts

seriously by virtue of the acclaim he’d racked up for his own

rule-abiding sleuth, Philo Vance. Eighty-plus years on, the list seems

rather quaint. Many of the greatest detective novels written since then

gleefully ignore Van Dine’s rules – especially No. 16, which guards

against any “long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with

side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric”

preoccupations,” for “such matters have no vital place in a record of

crime and deduction.”

 I have a mental image of Arthur St. John Bryant and John May, the

London detectives created in Christopher Fowler’s continuing series,

chancing upon Van Dine’s fictional detection guidelines not long after

publication. They would have been youngsters then, a couple of years

past learning how to read, a decade and change from their first meeting

as fresh-faced recruits to the Metropolitan Police Force, and 75 years

removed from their first joint appearance in Full Dark House

(2003) by their creator. And in my fantastical conjuring I see clearly

their respective reactions to Van Dine’s treatise: May would have

shrugged his shoulders and gone on with whatever more important task he

was doing, while Bryant would have noted every word in his head,

resolving to do the exact opposite – especially contradicting rule

number eight, “chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics.”

Read on for the rest – and for another take, see Robin Vidimos’s review at the Denver Post.